Weaning is a stressful period for feeder calves and this event typically results in reduced feed intake and a challenge to the immune system, says Brad White, DVM, MS, Kansas State University. Speaking at the 2010 Western Veterinary Conference, White noted that the goal is to utilize appropriate management and animal husbandry tools to minimize negative effects. Animal stress can be divided into the broad categories of psychological (restraint, handling, or novelty) or physical stresses (hunger, thirst, fatigue, injury, or thermal extremes).

Fenceline weaning is a management program allowing calves to see, hear, and smell their dams through the weaning process. Recent research has illustrated that providing fence line contact between calves and dams for seven days post-weaning reduces instances of signs of behavioral distress and increases weight gains. Cattle in these systems face relatively low levels of disease challenge during the stressful period of maternal separation and tend to have comparatively low rates of illness.

Maintaining calves on their current pasture also limits the dietary transition for the animals through the weaning phase. After acclimation to maternal separation, calves can be moved farther from dams and ration supplemented to provide the desired level of nutrition.

Cattle handling is another important aspect of minimizing the stress impact. Psychological or physical stresses can result from environmental challenges, poor facilities or abrasive cattle handling techniques. Feeder calves should be processed in a calm manner to enable maximum response to immunizations.